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Virgin Orbit’s first orbital test flight cut short after rocket released from carrier aircraft

By Darrell Etherington

On Monday, Virgin Orbit attempted the first full flight of its orbital payload launch system, which includes a modified Boeing 747 called ‘Cosmic Girl’ that acts as a carrier aircraft for its air-launched rocket LauncherOne. While Virgin Orbit has flown Cosmic Girl and LauncherOne previously for different tests and demonstrations, this was the first end-to-end system test. Unfortunately, that test ended much earlier than planned – just shortly after the LauncherOne rocket was released from Cosmic Girl.

We've confirmed a clean release from the aircraft. However, the mission terminated shortly into the flight. Cosmic Girl and our flight crew are safe and returning to base.

— Virgin Orbit (@Virgin_Orbit) May 25, 2020

Cosmic Girl took off just before 12 PM PT (3 PM ET) from Mojave Air and Spaceport in California. The aircraft was piloted by Chief Test Pilot Kelly Latimer, along with her co-pilot Todd Ericson. The aircraft then flew to its target release point, where LauncherOne did manage a “clean release” from the carrier craft as planned at around 12:50 PM PT (3:50 PM ET), but Virgin noted just a few minutes later that the mission was subsequently “terminated.”

While the Cosmic Girl crew and all other employees are confirmed safe by the company, this is likely to be a disappointing test. Still, Virgin Orbit’s CEO Dan Hart and VP Will Pomerantz cautioned that many first test missions for new launch systems don’t go quite as planned – which is why you test, after all.

The full planned flight map today for Virgin One’s orbital test.

The company will still likely be able to collect a lot of valuable data from this mission, which should provide insight into what went wrong. We’ll also be reaching out to the company to seek details of what caused the early ending to today’s mission. Once the company addresses the problems, it’s likely to set another attempt, and that might not be as far away as you might expect because Virgin has been very active on its launch vehicle pipeline and has backup craft nearly ready to fly.

Here’s what Virgin Orbit hopes to achieve with their first full orbital test launch on Sunday

By Darrell Etherington

Virgin Orbit held a press briefing on Saturday hosted by CEO Dan Hart and VP of Special Projects Will Pomerantz. The company aims to fly its first ever orbital test launch on Sunday, at roughly 9:30 AM PT (12:30 PM ET), though there’s flexibility for that to move depending on preparations and weather. If it succeeds with this test, it’ll join an elite club of private spaceflight companies that have actually made it to orbit – but that’s not the only measure of success for Virgin for tomorrow’s test run.

Hart and Pomerantz took journalists through the flight plan and different scenarios of what could happen, tempering expectations by reminding those on the call that “about half” of a company’s first full flights fail. While Pomerantz pointed out the failure rate, he was also quick to note that he’s extremely proud of the work the Virgin Orbit team has done to date, and has confidence in their skill sand abilities.

“You essentially get to a point where you have looked under every rock and verify that there’s nothing more for you to do to verify that the system is ready,” Pomerantz said. “That’s what we have done. We’ve ygone through an enormous amount of tests, we’ve essentially done everything that we can think of that we should do including fill the rocket up with cryogenics and fuel and pressure and and fly it out to the drop.”

The point Pomerantz makes is one that comes up often in rocket and spaceflight vehicle development – you can test systems individually, run simulations, and prepare as much as you possibly can, but nothing quite compares to actually flying the full system as it’s intended to fly under real-world conditions.

Virgin Orbit expects to begin fueling the rocket very early on Sunday morning, and as mentioned it’s targeting 9:30 AM PT (12:30 PM ET) for the actual launch, though it has a couple of hours of flexibility after that point in case things need to move. From there, the company’s Cosmic Girl launcher, which is modified Boeing 747 aircraft that carries its LauncherOne rocket, will fly for about 45 minutes to an hour to reach the drop point at around 35,000 feet. That’s when the rocket will separate, and ignite its own engine and continue – hopefully all the way to space, though Virgin will be monitoring its performance and conditions and could stop short of actual orbit depending on how the launch is proceeding.

From the drop point, Cosmic Girl will return to its runway at the Mojave Air and Spaceport in California, where it should land roughly 30 minutes after releasing LauncherOne. The whole point of the launch is to gather more data for ensuring that each part of the process works as designed once the launch vehicles graduate to operational status, and Hart explained.

“The purpose of this flight is to incrementally test the rocket and the airplane and the system as we pass through the operation,” Hart said. We will be loading and learning as we go through the day. So we’ll be getting data on our load sequence, our captured carry flight out, and the full flight of the rocket after it drops through first stage flight, separation, second stage flight, and so forth and so on. And we have telemetry stations around the world to capture the data as it comes down. The data, for tomorrow, is the product of that flight.”

The results of this flight will inform Virgin Orbit’s go-forward strategy, which includes hopefully flying one to two more times this year, which Pomerantz pointed out is actually fairly aggressive in terms of goals relative to other new spacecraft developed in past. Then they’ll also look to fly around twice as many times in 2021.

Asked about their market fit, Hart pointed out that he doesn’t believe the small satellite industry is still well-served in terms of a range of flexible offerings, noting that ride share missions often leave spacecraft in less than optimal orbits, where they either just operate in a compromised fashion or have to rely on an in-space bus to carry them the rest of the way. Virgin Orbit aims to be affordable enough that small satellite clients can use it to take them exactly where they need to go. He also added that because of the design of its in-air launcher, it’s flexible in terms of launch sites, which basically means it can take off and fly a mission from wherever a Boeing 747 can operate – which definitely isn’t true of any traditional rocket operator.

As Hart also noted, the number of companies that are actually flying to space and delivering payloads on behalf of customers is still tiny – there are a lot of companies working towards that goal, but few who’ve actually succeeded, even in a test mission. Virgin Orbit could join that elite club tomorrow – provided everything goes well.

Scale AI releases free lidar data set to power self-driving car development

By Kirsten Korosec

High-quality data is the fuel that powers AI algorithms. Without a continual flow of labeled data, bottlenecks can occur and the algorithm will slowly get worse and add risk to the system.

It’s why labeled data is so critical for companies like Zoox, Cruise and Waymo, which use it to train machine learning models to develop and deploy autonomous vehicles. That need is what led to the creation of Scale AI, a startup that uses software and people to process and label image, lidar and map data for companies building machine learning algorithms. Companies working on autonomous vehicle technology make up a large swath of Scale’s customer base, although its platform is also used by Airbnb, Pinterest and OpenAI, among others.

The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed, or even halted, that flow of data as AV companies suspended testing on public roads — the means of collecting billions of images. Scale is hoping to turn the tap back on, and for free.

The company, in collaboration with lidar manufacturer Hesai, launched this week an open-source data set called PandaSet that can be used for training machine learning models for autonomous driving. The data set, which is free and licensed for academic and commercial use, includes data collected using Hesai’s forward-facing PandarGT lidar with image-like resolution, as well as its mechanical spinning lidar known as Pandar64. The data was collected while driving urban areas in San Francisco and Silicon Valley before officials issued stay-at-home orders in the area, according to the company.

“AI and machine learning are incredible technologies with an incredible potential for impact, but also a huge pain in the ass,” Scale CEO and co-founder Alexandr Wang told TechCrunch in a recent interview. “Machine learning is definitely a garbage in, garbage out kind of framework — you really need high-quality data to be able to power these algorithms. It’s why we built Scale and it’s also why we’re using this data set today to help drive forward the industry with an open-source perspective.”

The goal with this lidar data set was to give free access to a dense and content-rich data set, which Wang said was achieved by using two kinds of lidars in complex urban environments filled with cars, bikes, traffic lights and pedestrians.

“The Zoox and the Cruises of the world will often talk about how battle-tested their systems are in these dense urban environments,” Wang said. “We wanted to really expose that to the whole community.”

Lidar - Scale AI PandaSet flyover GIF

Image Credits: Scale AI

The data set includes more than 48,000 camera images and 16,000 lidar sweeps — more than 100 scenes of 8s each, according to the company. It also includes 28 annotation classes for each scene and 37 semantic segmentation labels for most scenes. Traditional cuboid labeling, those little boxes placed around a bike or car, for instance, can’t adequately identify all of the lidar data. So, Scale uses a point cloud segmentation tool to precisely annotate complex objects like rain.

Open sourcing AV data isn’t entirely new. Last year, Aptiv and Scale released nuScenes, a large-scale data set from an autonomous vehicle sensor suite. Argo AI, Cruise and Waymo were among a number of AV companies that have also released data to researchers. Argo AI released curated data along with high-definition maps, while Cruise shared a data visualization tool it created called Webviz that takes raw data collected from all the sensors on a robot and turns that binary code into visuals.

Scale’s efforts are a bit different; for instance, Wang said the license to use this data set doesn’t have any restrictions.

“There’s a big need right now and a continual need for high-quality labeled data,” Wang said. “That’s one of the biggest hurdles overcome when building self-driving systems. We want to democratize access to this data, especially at a time when a lot of the self-driving companies can’t collect it.”

That doesn’t mean Scale is going to suddenly give away all of its data. It is, after all a for-profit enterprise. But it’s already considering collecting and open sourcing fresher data later this year.

Tesla drops lawsuit against Alameda County over Fremont factory reopening

By Kirsten Korosec

Tesla has officially dismissed a lawsuit filed earlier this month against Alameda County that sought to force the reopening of its factory in Fremont, California.

The dismissal, which was granted Wednesday, closes the loop on a battle between Tesla CEO Elon Musk and county health and law enforcement officials. The lawsuit filed May 9, hours after Musk threatened to sue and move operations out of state, sought injunctive and declaratory relief against Alameda County. Reuters was the first to report the dismissal.

The lawsuit was filed after Tesla’s plans to resume production at the Fremont factory were thwarted by the county’s decision to extend a stay-at-home order issued to curb the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus.

Musk had based the reopening on new guidance issued by California Gov. Gavin Newsom that allows manufacturers to resume operations. However, the governor’s guidance included a warning that local governments could keep more restrictive rules in place. Alameda County, along with several other Bay Area counties and cities, extended the stay-at-home orders through the end of May. The orders were revised and did ease some of the restrictions. However, it did not lift the order for manufacturing.

After several days of Twitter rants and negotiations with the county, Tesla was allowed to begin to reopen its factory as long as it adhered to approved safety measures.

Conversa pitches its modified chat-based tool to monitor employee health in the wake of COVID-19

By Jonathan Shieber

Conversa Health, the automated chat technology for healthcare updates, is pitching a modified version of its service specifically to monitor for symptoms of COVID-19.

The company’s personalized automated chat asks about employees’ potential exposure to the novel coronavirus and then asks about potential symptoms.

Once employees complete the survey they are either cleared to go into work and receive a digital badge that they’ve taken the check up, or are instructed to stay home and receive some information on how to take care of themselves and monitor their condition for changes.

“There is no real choice between reopening for business and keeping the spread of coronavirus in check—we must do both,” said Murray Brozinsky, Conversa’s chief executive, in a statement. “As businesses and schools anticipate getting back to work in their physical locations, it is absolutely vital that they create a healthy and safe environment for all returning employees, students and visitors.”

Healthcare organizations like Northwell Health, UCSF Health, UNC Health and Prisma Health are already using the company’s technology, according to a statement. At these institutions, Conversa has provided symptom checking and triage, check-ins with quarantined patients and delivery of lab results to millions of patients. They gave also screened hundreds of thousands of employees over the last month.

The screener was developed in conjunction with the University of California San Francisco Health.

“We needed to safely screen while minimizing delays for our employees, visitors, and others caring for patients,” said Aaron Neinstein, MD, Director of Clinical Informatics, UCSF Center for Digital Health Innovation, in a statement. “Conversa’s virtual care and communication solution was flexible and scalable to help us create a user-centered solution, while modernizing our processes for how we engage and care for our employees. It’s been working great for us and we’re extending use to our employees across the UCSF campus – I think employers across many other industries will find themselves wanting to use a tool like Conversa to help create a safe workplace and ensure they have healthy employees.”

Mammoth Biosciences partners with GSK to develop handheld CRISPR-based COVID-19 test

By Darrell Etherington

California-based Mammoth Biosciences has signed a powerful partner for its development of a CRISPR-based test for COVID-19, which would aim to delivery accurate, fast results using a handheld, disposable testing platform. Mammoth Biosciences will be using its DETECTR platform to develop the test, which recently received validation through a peer-reviewed study published in Nature.

Already, Mammoth has its DETECTR platform under evaluation by the FDA for an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA), and partnering with GSK and its consumer healthcare division sets up Mammoth to potentially scale its development and distribution to widespread commercial and consumer availability. Mammoth and GSK aim to have a COVID-19-specific test based on DETECTR ready for FDA evaluation before the end of this year.

The goal is to make it available first to healthcare facilities in the U.S.. It can provide a lot of advantages vs. current solutions for health facility testing, since it provides results in under 20 minutes and can be conducted fully on site using a nasal swab collected from a patient. It’s also fully disposable, making it more convenient and ultimately safer for healthcare professionals to use.

After that, the partners plan to expand availability, ultimately offering the test direct to consumers for over-the-counter use. The nature of the test means it’s not much more difficult to administer than may other at-home diagnostics, which h could further reduce the risk of transmission for infected individuals and make tests much more accessible and widespread.

Note that this likely won’t happen before at least next year given the current development timeline, but given the nature of the ongoing global pandemic, it definitely seems like we’ll still be interested in expanding testing capabilities as one of our ongoing strategies of mitigating the impact of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19.

How to decode a data breach notice

By Zack Whittaker

Over the years I’ve seen hundreds, probably thousands, of data breach notifications warning that a company’s data was lost, stolen or left online for anyone to grab.

Most of them look largely the same. It’s my job to decode what they actually mean for the victims whose information is put at risk.

Data breach notifications are meant to tell you what happened, when and what impact it may have on you. You’ve probably already seen a few this year. That’s because most U.S. states have laws that compel companies to publicly disclose security incidents, like a data breach, as soon as possible. Europe’s rules are stricter, and fines can be a common occurrence if breaches aren’t disclosed.

But data breach notifications have become an all-too-regular exercise in crisis communications. These notices increasingly try to deflect blame, obfuscate important details and omit key facts. After all, it’s in a company’s best interest to keep the stock markets happy, investors satisfied and regulators off their backs. Why would it want to say anything to the contrary?

The next time you get a data breach notification, read between the lines. By knowing the common bullshit lines to avoid, you can understand the questions you need to ask.

“We take security and privacy seriously.”
Read: “We clearly don’t.”

A phrase frequently featured in data breach notifications, we first wrote about companies taking security and privacy “seriously” last year. We found that about one-third of all notices filed with the California attorney general in 2019 had some variation of this line. The reality is that most companies have shown little compassion or care about the privacy or security of your data, but do care about having to explain to their customers that their data was stolen. It’s a hollow, overused phrase that means nothing.

“We recently discovered a security incident…”
Read: “Someone else found it but we’re trying to do damage control.”

It sounds innocuous enough, but it’s an important remark to get right. When a company says they’ve “recently discovered” a security incident, ask who actually reported the incident. All too often it’s a reporter — like me — who’s reached out for comment because a hacker dropped off a file containing their customer database and now the company is scrambling to take ownership of the incident because it looks better than the company being in the dark.

“An unauthorized individual…”
Read: “We don’t know who’s to blame, but don’t blame us.”

This is one of the most contentious parts of a data breach notification, and it boils down to a simple question: Who was to blame for a security incident? Legally speaking, “unauthorized access” means someone unlawfully broke into a system, often using someone else’s password or bypassing a login screen. But companies often get this wrong, or can’t — or don’t want to — distinguish between whether or not an incident was malicious. If a system was exposed or left online without a password, you’d blame the company for lax security controls. If a good-faith security researcher finds and reports an unprotected system, for example, there’s no reason to paint them as a malicious actor. Companies love to shift the blame, so keep an open mind.

“We took immediate steps…”
Read: “We sprung into action… as soon as we found out.”

Hackers aren’t always caught in the act. In a lot of cases, most hackers are long gone by the time a company learns of a breach. When a company says it took immediate steps, don’t assume it’s from the moment of the breach. Equifax said it “acted immediately” to stop its intrusion, which saw hackers steal nearly 150 million consumers’ credit records. But hackers had already been in its system for two months before Equifax found the suspicious activity. What really matters is when did the security incident start; when did the company learn of the security incident; and when did the company inform regulators of the breach?

“Our forensic investigation shows…”
Read: “We asked someone to tell us how f**ked we are.”

Incident responders help to understand how an intrusion or a data breach happened. It helps the company collect on cyber-insurance and prevent a similar breach happening again. But some companies use the term “forensics” loosely. Internal investigations are not transparent or accountable, and their outcomes are rarely scrutinized or published, whereas incident responders are independent, qualified assessors that will tell a company what it needs to hear and not what it wants to hear — even if their findings may still remain private.

“Out of an abundance of caution, we want to inform you of the incident.”
Read: “We were forced to tell you.”

Don’t think for a second that a company is doing “the right thing” by disclosing a security incident. In the U.S. and Europe, companies aren’t given a choice. Most states have some form of a data breach notification law that compels companies to disclose incidents that affect a certain number of residents and above. Failing to disclose a breach can lead to massive penalties. Just look at Yahoo (which, like TechCrunch, is owned by Verizon), which was fined $35 million in 2018 by a U.S. federal regulator for failing to disclose one of its data breaches that saw 500 million user accounts stolen.

“A sophisticated cyberattack…”
Read: “We’re trying not to look as stupid as we actually are.”

Just because a company says it was hit by a “sophisticated” cyberattack doesn’t mean it was. It’s hyperbole, designed to serve as a “cover your ass” statement to downplay a security incident. What it really tells you is that the company has no idea how the attack happened. After all, some of the biggest breaches in history happened because of unpatched systems, weak passwords or because someone clicked on a malicious email.

“There is no evidence that data was taken.”
Read: “That we know of.”

“No evidence” doesn’t mean that something hasn’t happened, it’s that it hasn’t been seen yet. Either the company isn’t looking hard enough or it doesn’t know. Even if a company says it has “no evidence” that data was stolen, it’s worth asking how it arrived at that conclusion.

“A small percentage of our customers are affected.”
Read: “It sounds way worse if we say ‘millions’ of users.”

The next time you see a data breach notification that says only a “small percentage” of customers are affected by a breach, take a minute to think what that actually means. Houzz admitted a data breach in January 2019, in which it said “some of our user data” was taken. Months later, a hacker posted some 57 million Houzz user records. CBS-owned Last.fm also said in 2012 that “some” of its passwords were stolen in a breach. It later amounted to 43 million passwords. If a company doesn’t tell you how many people are affected, it’s because they don’t know — or they don’t want you to know.

Decrypted: No warrants for web data, UK grid cyberattack, CyberArk buys Idaptive

By Zack Whittaker

One vote.

That’s all it needed for a bipartisan Senate amendment to pass that would have stopped federal authorities from further accessing millions of Americans’ browsing records. But it didn’t. One Republican was in quarantine, another was AWOL. Two Democratic senators — including former presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders — were nowhere to be seen and neither returned a request for comment.

It was one of several amendments offered up in the effort to reform and reauthorize the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the basis of U.S. spying laws. The law, signed in 1978, put restrictions on who intelligence agencies could target with their vast listening and collection stations. But after the Edward Snowden revelations in 2013, lawmakers champed at the bit to change the system to better protect Americans, who are largely protected from the spies within its borders.

One privacy-focused amendment, brought by Sens. Mike Lee and Patrick Leahy, passed — permits for more independent oversight to the secretive and typically one-sided Washington, D.C. court that authorizes government surveillance programs, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. That amendment all but guarantees the bill will bounce back to the House for further scrutiny.

Here’s more from the week.


THE BIG PICTURE

Three years after WannaCry, U.S. still on North Korea’s tail

A feature-length profile in Wired magazine looks at the life of Marcus Hutchins, one of the heroes who helped stop the world’s biggest cyberattack three years to the day.

The profile — a 14,000-word cover story — examines his part in halting the spread of the global WannaCry ransomware attack and how his early days led him into a criminal world that prompted him to plead guilty to felony hacking charges. Thanks in part to his efforts in saving the internet, he was sentenced to time served and walked free.

Uber lays off another 3,000 employees

By Megan Rose Dickey

Uber is laying off another 3,000 employees, the Wall Street Journal first reported. Uber is also closing 45 offices, and rethinking its approach in areas like freight and autonomous vehicle technology.

“I knew that I had to make a hard decision, not because we are a public company, or to protect or stock price, or to please our Board or investors,” Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi wrote to employees today in a memo, viewed by TechCrunch . “I had to make this decision because our very future as an essential service for the cities of the world — our being there for millions of people and businesses who rely on us — demands it. We must establish ourselves as a self-sustaining enterprise that no longer relies on new capital or investors to keep growing, expanding, and innovating.”

As part of the layoffs, Uber is expected to pay up to $145 million to employees via severance and other benefits, and up to $80 million in order to shut down offices, according to a filing with the SEC.

This comes just weeks after Uber laid off 3,700 employees in order to save about $1 billion in costs. Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Uber has laid off about 25% of its workforce.

Rides have been hit hard amid the coronavirus. More specifically, rides are down about 80%, according to the company. Food delivery, however, has been hot. In Q1, Uber Eats experienced major growth with gross bookings of $4.68 billion, up 52% from that same quarter one year ago.

“I will caution that while Eats growth is accelerating, the business today doesn’t come close to covering our expenses,” Khosrowshahi wrote in the memo today. “I have every belief that the moves we are making will get Eats to profitability, just as we did with Rides, but it’s not going to happen overnight.”

Meanwhile, Uber is in talks to buy GrubHub to beef up its food delivery business, UberEats, according to The WSJ and Bloomberg. Uber first approached Grubhhub earlier this year with an offer, but the two companies are still in talks, according to the WSJ. A Bloomberg report says the deal could be finalized sometime this month. Khosrowshahi. however, did not mention this deal in the memo today.

In an attempt to organize more around its core offering, Uber is shutting down Incubator after less than one year of launch. It’s also shutting down AI Labs and looking into alternatives for Uber Works, a service Uber launched in October to match workers with shifts.

Those not affected in these layoffs are drivers, which are not currently classified as employees but rather independent contractors. Still, many drivers have continued to be vocal amid the coronavirus pandemic, demanding better protections and benefits. Last week, rideshare drivers staged a caravan protest to demand Uber comply with AB  pay into the state’s unemployment insurance fund and drop the ballot initiative it proposed along with Lyft and DoorDash that aims to keep gig workers classified as independent contractors.

Gatik adds autonomous box trucks to its ‘middle mile’ game plan

By Kirsten Korosec

Gatik, the autonomous vehicle startup focused on the ‘middle mile’ of logistics, has added box trucks to its fleet as Walmart and other customers look for ways to boost efficiency and shore up the supply chain amid surging demand from consumers ordering goods online.

Gatik came out of stealth nearly a year ago with a game plan — and Walmart as a customer — to haul goods short distances for retailers and distributors using self-driving commercial delivery vans. The self-driving vehicles still have a human safety operator behind the wheel.

CEO and co-founder Gautam Narang has previously told TechCrunch that the company can fulfill a need in the market through a variety of use cases, including partnering with third-party logistics giants like Amazon, FedEx  or even the U.S. Postal Service, auto part distributors, consumer goods, food and beverage distributors as well as medical and pharmaceutical companies.

The business plan hasn’t changed. But its fleet has. In July, the startup launched a commercial service with Walmart to deliver online grocery orders from the retailer’s main warehouse to its neighborhood stores in Bentonville, Arkansas. Initially, Gatik used light commercial trucks and vans — specifically Ford Transit Connect vans — that were outfitted with its self-driving system.

Customer feedback prompted the company to add bigger temperature-controlled vehicles. Gatik’s commercial fleet of more than 10 vehicles are used to serve multiple Fortune 500 companies across North America, according to the startup. The figure doesn’t include additional vehicles being tested in California.

Gatik expects to name new partners and operations in U.S. and Canada this year.

The box trucks, which range in size between 11 and 20-feet long, can deliver ambient, cold and frozen goods. Each vehicle completes between six to 15 runs a day. Gatik has used its box trucks to deliver more than 15,000 orders for multiple customers since operations began.

The shift to autonomous box trucks taps into a trend among major retailers to use micro distribution centers to help meet increasing demand from consumers ordering goods online. Class 8 semi trucks, which once went directly to a retail store, now hauls goods to the MDCs. This allows retailers like Walmart to store more goods closer to its retail locations to meet demand for online orders.

“Micro fulfillment or distribution centers are all the rage right now — that’s basically the wave that we’re riding,” Narang said. “Companies are targeting warehouse automation for micro fulfillment centers. They’re automating the warehouses, and we’re automating the on-road logistics.”

Grocery chains were struggling to keep up with the growing demand of online grocery pickup and delivery even before the COVID-19 pandemic. But Narang expects demand for online grocery pickup and delivery to increase twofold. Gatik has already seen a 30% to 35% uptick in the number of runs it completes each day in order to meet demand.

“I think this is going to last because the crisis is shaping how consumers do their shopping,” Narang said.

Eventually, Gatik will pull the human safety driver out of the vehicle. It’s an achievable goal, Narang added, because the company has focused on repeatable pre-determined routes and has introduced constraints that simplify the technical challenge. For instance, Gatik vehicles don’t make multiple lane changes and only make right turns.

LetsGetChecked raises $71M as COVID-19 epidemic makes home-testing increasingly vital

By Jonathan Shieber

As the country wrestles with the COVID-19 epidemic, home health testing, checkups and diagnostics have never been more important and companies like LetsGetChecked are filling a void left in a U.S. healthcare system consumed by the outbreak.

The surge in demand for the company’s services has led to an equal surge in investor interest, and LetsGetChecked is one of many home health and remote diagnostics companies to raise new capital during the pandemic.

The company’s new $71 million financing isn’t just about the services the company can provide during the COVID-19 epidemic. Now that an increasing number of Americans are accessing home health services, they’ll likely continue to use them thanks to their convenience and ease of use, according to LetsGetChecked chief executive, Peter Foley.

“People are very focused on COVID-19. [But] we’re seeing trends of increases in everything else,” said Foley. “This situation has definitely legitimized the space of home diagnostics. We are seeing spikes in those kinds of tests. Everything that needs monitoring we’re seeing spikes in.”

Most consumers are avoiding doctors, hospitals and clinics out of concern over the epidemic and that’s pushing them to use telemedicine and remote testing services, said Foley.

And the company has stepped up to address the coronavirus outbreak itself. The company, which has a manufacturing facility in Queens where it makes its own test kits has been unfazed by the supply chain issues that have hit other companies, said Foley. And LetsGetChecked has a certified lab facility where it can conduct its own tests.

LetsGetChecked at-home Coronavirus test kit.

Right now, the company is offering both a serological test (sourced from a Korean lab and awaiting approval by the FDA) and a PCR test (from ThermoFisher) for SARS-CoV-2 and is looking to expand the scope of its tests. The LetsGetChecked tests include a rapid (antibody) serology test for results within 15 minutes, followed by a PCR-based test which requires a swab sample to be collected from a patient and later processed within the LetsGetChecked high complexity CLIA lab in Monrovia, Calif., the company said. Initially the testing was for first responders and those most at risk from the disease, but the population that the company is testing is expanding as the spread of the virus slows.

“We were fortunate enough to be in a position where we could help people now,” says Foley.

LetsGetChecked isn’t the only startup at work developing and distributing home testing services for the coronavirus. Everlywell and Scanwell Health are two other startups that have been developing and selling home test kits as well.

LetsGetChecked began fundraising four months ago, and even then, in the days before COVID-19 hit American shores, the environment for raising capital had tightened, Foley said.

In the days before the disease reached epidemic proportions in the U.S. LetsGetChecked was pitching its ability to test at-home or through partner retailers for cancer screening, sexual health, fertility and pharmacogenomic testing.

Users can buy tests and collect samples at home before sending them to LetsGetChecked’s facility. The company connects its customers to board-certified physicians to discuss abnormal results and determine a course of action for treatment

The company’s initial pitch and the promise of a vast remote diagnostics market was enough to convince Illumina Ventures, which co-led the round with HLM Venture Partners. Other new investors included Deerfield, CommonFund Capital, and Angeles Investment Advisors. Previous investors Transformation Capital, Optum Vnetures, and Qiming Venture Partners USA also participated.

For Illumina Ventures, the LetsGetChecked remote testing service can serve as a channel for some of the tests under development at the firm’s other healthcare portfolio companies, according to Nick Naclerio, a founding partner at Illumina Ventures and a new director on the LetsGetChecked board.

“A lot of companies developing cutting edge new tests have challenges building a channel into the broader market,” said Naclerio. “Here is a company going after building the kind of future, patient-initiated testing channel that the world needs and is probably synergistic with some of the companies that are doing next generation testing.”

Those would be companies like Serimmune, which is developing tests to map the human immune system, or Genome Medical, which applies the latest understanding of the human genome to treatments for patients. The firm also has investments in cancer screening companies like Grail, which is aiming to provide an early detection diagnostic for cancer.

Naclerio also sees a dramatic shift in consumer behavior on the horizon in the post-COVID-19 world.

“COVID presents a tremendous need for at-home infectious disease testing or at-work infectious disease testing,” he said. “This is breaking down a lot of the barriers that have historically slowed the adoption of telehealth… It creates an opportunity for LetsGetChecked even once we get over the peak of the curve. There’s going to be a lasting impact.”

Decrypted: Chegg’s third time unlucky, Okta’s new CSO, Rapid7 beefs up cloud security

By Zack Whittaker

Ransomware is getting sneakier and smarter.

The latest example comes from ExecuPharm, a little-known but major outsourced pharmaceutical company that confirmed it was hit by a new type of ransomware last month. The incursion not only encrypted the company’s network and files, hackers also exfiltrated vast amounts of data from the network. The company was handed a two-for-one threat: pay the ransom and get your files back or don’t pay and the hackers will post the files to the internet.

This new tactic is shifting how organizations think of ransomware attacks: it’s no longer just a data-recovery mission; it’s also now a data breach. Now companies are torn between taking the FBI’s advice of not paying the ransom or the fear their intellectual property (or other sensitive internal files) are published online.

Because millions are now working from home, the surface area for attackers to get in is far greater than it was, making the threat of ransomware higher than ever before.

That’s just one of the stories from the week. Here’s what else you need to know.


THE BIG PICTURE

Chegg hacked for the third time in three years

Education giant Chegg confirmed its third data breach in as many years. The latest break-in affected past and present staff after a hacker made off with 700 names and Social Security numbers. It’s a drop in the ocean when compared to the 40 million records stolen in 2018 and an undisclosed number of passwords taken in a breach at Thinkful, which Chegg had just acquired in 2019.

Those 700 names account for about half of its 1,400 full-time employees, per a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. But Chegg’s refusal to disclose further details about the breach — beyond a state-mandated notice to the California attorney general’s office — makes it tough to know exactly went wrong this time.

Clever Care Health Plan launches with a holistic healing spin on Medicare Advantage programs

By Jonathan Shieber

Angling for a slice of the multi-billion dollar Medicare Advantage market with a pitch to integrate holistic medical practitioners into its network of service providers has netted Clever Care Health Plan some big backers and a huge market opportunity, the company says.

The company has raised $23 million in a new round of funding from investors led by Norwest Partners for its unique take on how to create a new network of healthcare providers for potential Medicare Advantage beneficiaries.

Several healthcare startups have raised hundreds of millions of dollars to tackle the Medicare Advantage opportunity. These include companies like Bright Health, Clover Health, Devoted Health, and Oscar, but, to-date, none have tried to put an emphasis on cultural sensitivity and holistic healing that chief operating officer Myong Lee and his co-founders settled on.

Joining Lee in the launch of Clever Care’s services are chief executive David Firdaus and chief financial officer Hiep Pham. The three have a long history of working together at other health plans. 

We’re looking to have a really unique supplemental benefit on the Eastern Medicine side,” said Lee of the company’s pitch.

Of course, there’s one hitch. Whether the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services will approve the treatments for coverage. ““All of this is predicated on CMS approval,” Lee acknowledged.

Already, CMS has identified some holistic medical treatments — notably acupuncture — as eligible for coverage, and Lee and his team are hoping that more approvals could be forthcoming. 

Lee said that the problem was particularly acute for California’s aging immigrant population, which does not necessarily feel comfortable accessing the current healthcare system. Often, these populations are comprised of people who don’t speak English very well and whose needs are going unmet by current providers.

Using his own parents as an example, he said, “There wasn’t anything from their perspective. Nothing that spoke to them from an Eastern Medicine perspective.”

As Norwest general partner Casper de Clerq noted, Medicare Advantage has grown to encompass roughly 35% of all Medicare recipients. “There are 64 million Medicare members and 22 million are on Medicare Advnatage,” de Clerq said. “As this market matures it’s going to become more and more specialized and more niche with different populations that are not properly served. This hyperlocal phenomenon will be more and more important.”

The company said it would use the capital to establish its California Medicare Advantage health plan and hire staff for its two offices in Little Saigon in Orange County and Arcadia in Los Angeles County. 

“Medicare spending was 15 percent of total federal spending in 2018 and is projected to nearly double due to the retirement of the Baby Boom Generation and the rapid growth of per capita healthcare costs,” said Sean Doolan, healthcare partner at Global Founders Capital, which joined the round alongside Norwest. “We are excited to partner with the Clever Care Health Plan team and fully believe in their bold vision to create a progressive and affordable Medicare Advantage plan that will dramatically expand access to high quality care for diverse communities.”

An LA-led, public-private partnership pitches a $150B green infrastructure package to Congress

By Jonathan Shieber

Representatives from the government and the utility managing the power of Los Angeles are proposing a sweeping infrastructure package worth roughly $150 billion centered on the broad electrification of transportation and industry.

Drafted by the Los Angeles-based public-private Transportation Electrification Partnership, a collaboration between the Office of Mayor Eric Garcetti, Southern California Edison, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator, the proposal lays out a number of initiatives based on work that’s already being done in Los Angeles to electrify the city’s infrastructure.

As the nation’s second-largest metropolitan area, boasting an over $1 trillion economy, decisions made in the city can have broad economic and social implications that ripple far beyond the Southern California region. Alongside New York, Los Angeles has set some of the nation’s most aggressive targets for the rollout of renewable and sustainable industries.

The proposal sets out four big initiatives, including zero-emissions vehicle manufacturing, assembly and adoption; zero-emissions infrastructure investments; commitments to public transit investments; workforce development; and job training. There’s also a relatively modest request (of only $4 billion) for funding devoted to pilot projects, startup companies, and public clean technology investment initiatives (like LACI).

The initiative reserves the largest cash pile for the development of electric charging infrastructure around the country, according to the proposal seen by TechCrunch and sent to House and Senate leadership including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

Image Credits: Monty Rakusen / Getty Images

Of the $85 billion set aside for the deployment of zero-emission vehicle infrastructure, the TEP proposal reserves roughly one-fourth for upgrades to the electricity grid. The funding would include $20 billion for utility upgrades. Of that, $10 billion will go toward solar and energy storage projects designed to make grids more resistant to climate-related catastrophes like extreme weather events, wildfires and other disasters. The remaining $10 billion would support commercial and residential vehicle charging, solar energy development and energy storage projects.

Another $15 billion is dedicated to medium- and heavy-duty vehicle charging that would be administered by state governments, transit agencies or regional agencies. New developments could be added to truck yards, truck stops and plazas, as well as strategic locations, such as ports and airports.

Funding of the scale proposed here could enable a transformation not only in the LA metropolitan area, but across the country, as well as provide opportunities where possible for local hire through community benefit agreements, which are an effective mechanism to ensure charging infrastructure projects include workers living local to a project, as well as other targeted hiring policies, such as US Veteran hiring, are achieved,” writes LACI chief executive, Matt Peterson.  

Light-duty charging infrastructure occupies another $10 billion of the suggested stimulus measures. The goal, is to get local, shovel-ready projects the financing they’d need to start the process of hiring workers immediately. One project that’s already being rolled out in Los Angeles is the development of curbside charging infrastructure on streetlight poles to serve drivers who don’t have access to charging infrastructure at home.

Finally under the infrastructure bucket, the proposal recommends that Congress set aside $11 billion for transit and school bus charging to be administered via states, transit agencies and school districts;  $5 billion for state and local government fleets; and $4 billion to support the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

The LIHEAP money is critical for the over 12 million Americans who have recently lost their job, the consortium argues and could also help finance the Department of Energy’s Weatherization program.

Popular programs like Opportunity Zones, New Market Tax Credits and Community Development Finance Institutions could be used to boost the government’s commitment with private capital, the plan’s authors argue.

Non-Electric vehicles fill a parking lot in Rosemead, California, where two Electric Vehicle charging stations are offered on September 12, 2018.

All of that charging infrastructure and grid upgrades are in part designed to help meet the increased power demands that the proposal expects to bring onto the grid through another $25 billion in government funding for electric vehicles of all types. The funds could be allocated through existing programs including the extension of the electric vehicle tax credit for automakers and new programs that would allow consumers to trade in older model vehicles for newer, preferably electric, vehicles.

An additional way the government could juice the auto industry — and specifically electric vehicles — is by providing point of sale rebates for all vehicles that could be issued through car dealerships, according to the proposal. “This will also help dealerships increase sales and bring needed sales tax revenues to local and state governments,” Peterson writes.

There’s $25 billion in money set aside for public transit and $12.5 billion set aside for workforce retraining and education.

For startups, the programs that could have the most impact — aside from the broad infrastructure package that could mean additional demand for new technologies — is a far smaller and more targeted proposal for roughly $4 billion that would allocate money directly to small and medium sized businesses and local incubation and corporate development programs.

“Startups and small businesses are the engine of every local and regional economy,” writes Peterson. “Targeting resources to this sector is critical to help entrepreneurs continue America’s leadership in technology innovation, restart small businesses, and help put people back to work.”

TEP is proposing a $1 billion grant for early stage research and development of cleantech and zero-emission mobility innovations and $1 billion for shovel ready pilot projects deployed by startups and small businesses via local governments.

Still more money would include $500 million in emergency loans and grants for cleantech startups and small businesses that are involved in solar installations, energy storage, and electric vehicle technology development. Revenues for these companies have dropped precipitously as consumer-facing demand has fallen off a cliff.

There’s also a $500 million pot targeted for startups and small businesses founded by women and people of color and $500 million for nonprofit cleantech and innovation incubators.

Alongside LACI, there are a few of these nonprofit investment programs which have cropped up across the Midwest that could be a boon to budding entrepreneurs.

Finally, the proposal advocates for at least $500 million in funding to train unemployed or underemployed would-be laborers along with veterans and the formerly incarcerated.

Some of these initiatives have been tried in the past, and despite partisan complaints, proved effective. The Obama-era loan program established to boost clean energy companies generated revenues for the government despite the much-publicized flameout of the solar startup, Solyndra. Even Tesla benefited from the program, paying back a $460 million loan from the program a decade ahead of schedule.

With increasing volatility in oil prices, the move to an increasingly electric infrastructure makes sense because it offers more stability for energy buyers, including consumers and businesses.

Virgin Orbit’s ventilators gain FDA authorization, deliveries to hospitals will start within days

By Darrell Etherington

Virgin Orbit has secured an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for its ventilator, which the small satellite launch company designed and prototyped within the past few weeks in response to growing need for ventilator hardware to address the most severe cases of COVID-19 infection. Virgin Orbit anticipates deliveries of the ventilator hardware to start “within the next few days” now that it has secured the agency’s authorization.

Virgin Orbit designed its ventilator, which is a take on an automated version of the manual resuscitators used most frequently in ambulances by paramedics responding to calls where a person has lost the ability to breath on their own, based on guidance form a group of experts and doctors called ‘The Bridge Ventilator Consortium.” It’s designed mostly as a stop-gap and supplement to free up use of proper ventilator hardware to treat the most severe respiratory symptoms in COVID-19 patients, but should still free up a valuable medical resources that are in short supply as the pandemic continues.

Already, Vrigin says it’s manufacturing the ventilators, and is making “over 100 per week” in terms of its ongoing production rate. The initial delivery set to go out this week will be 100 units that will be shipped to California’s Emergency Medial Services Authority, for distribution depending on need in that sate.

While it has done a lot to quickly ramp up this production line and start shipping ventilators, Virgin Orbit says that it’s been continuing to build out its own small satellite launch system. In fact, it just recently flew a key final test of its LauncherOne vehicle and the carrier aircraft that brings it to its launch altitude – the last big step before it runs a full demonstration of its system, including an orbital flight, later this year.

Polestar’s first all-electric vehicle will start at $59,900 in the US

By Kirsten Korosec

Polestar, the electric performance brand spun out of Volvo, said the base price of its first all-electric vehicle will be $59,900 in the United States, lower than originally targeted.

The 2021 Polestar 2, an electric performance fastback, is the first EV to come out of a brand that was relaunched three years ago. Polestar, once a high-performance brand under Volvo Cars, was recast as an electric performance brand in 2017. The aim was to produce exciting and fun-to-drive electric vehicles — a niche that Tesla was the first to fill and has dominated ever since.

The company believes the vehicle is well-positioned for a successful entry into the U.S. market thanks to its lower pricing, tax incentives and the ability for customers to buy it online, said Gregor Hembrough, who heads up Polestar USA. The U.S. prices are also below incentive thresholds in a few critical markets such as California and New York.

Polestar has been trickling out announcements around the upcoming Polestar 2 for months now, including pricing for Europe, which starts at €58,800. On Thursday, the company revealed a few more pricing details for the various options customers can buy, including a $5,000 performance pack, a $4,000 upgrade of Nappa leather interior and $1,200 for 20-inch alloy wheels.

The Polestar 2 will likely be held up as a possible competitor to the Tesla Model 3. The pricing on the two vehicles don’t quite match up unless the $7,500 federal tax incentive, for which Polestar still qualifies, is considered. Tesla no longer qualifies for the federal tax credit because it has sold more than 200,000 electric vehicles.

Stripping out the incentives, the base price of the Polestar 2 is slightly more expensive than the performance version of the Model 3, which starts at $56,990.

Until the automaker begins delivery to the U.S., which is expected this summer, it won’t be clear how it stacks up against the Model 3.

Polestar is aiming to attract customers with tech and the performance specs of the fastback, which produces 408 horsepower, 487 pound feet of torque and has a 78 kWh battery pack that delivers an estimated range of 292 miles under Europe’s WLTP. Polestar hasn’t released the EPA estimates for the Polestar 2.

The interior of the Polestar 2, which features Google’s Android Automotive operating system.

The Polestar 2’s infotainment system will be powered by Android OS and, as a result, bring into the car embedded Google services such as Google Assistant, Google Maps and the Google Play Store. This shouldn’t be confused with Android Auto, which is a secondary interface that lies on top of an operating system. Android OS is modeled after its open-source mobile operating system that runs on Linux. But instead of running smartphones and tablets, Google modified it so it could be used in cars.

Polestar, which is jointly owned by Volvo Car Group and Zhejiang Geely Holding of China, plans to open physical retail showrooms called Polestar Spaces once stay-at-home orders prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic are lifted. The first of these locations will open on the West Coast of the United States and New
York in late summer 2020, the company said. The Polestar 2 will be available in all 50 states to buy or lease.

EV startup Byton furloughs half of its 450-person staff in the US

By Kirsten Korosec

China-based electric car startup Byton has furloughed about half of the 450 employees who work at its North American headquarters in Santa Clara, Calif., putting the release date of the automaker’s upcoming M-Byte vehicle into question.

Byton told TechCrunch the furloughs were the result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The intention is to bring these furloughed employees back, the company said without providing a timeline.

“Given the impact of the pandemic on the global economy and the auto industries we, like several companies, have had to take action to face the challenge,” a Byton spokesperson wrote in an email to TechCrunch. “The furloughs have affected all areas within Byton’s U.S. operations. Employees in China have not been furloughed.”

Electrek was the first to report the furloughs.

The furloughs come as the company is preparing to bring its M-Byte electric SUV into volume production later this year. The vehicle, perhaps best known for its massive 48-inch wraparound digital dashboard, will be produced at Byton’s factory in Nanjing, China. The M-Byte will be sold in China, the U.S. and Europe.

Byton previously said sales will begin in China in the second half of 2020, followed by the U.S. The vehicle will come to the first European markets in the first half of 2021. However, the COVID-19 pandemic — and the ensuing furloughs and cuts — could delay Byton’s timeline.

Byton told TechCrunch it is evaluating the impact of COVID-19 on production of the M-Byte. Byton’s China factory reopened in mid-February and is now nearly fully operational, according to the company. 

Byton has raised about $820 million from investors that include the company’s founding team, FAW Group, Nanjing Qiningfeng New Energy Industry Investment Fund and CATL.

The startup has been working to close a Series C round of fundraising for months now. The company told TechCrunch it is in the “final stage” of the round, which will include investors FAW Group and the industrial investment fund of Nanjing municipal government, Myoung Shin Co. of South Korea, MS Autotech and Japanese enterprise Marubeni Corporation .

Cruise hires PG&E board chairman Jeff Bleich as chief legal officer

By Kirsten Korosec

Cruise, the subsidiary of GM that also has backing from SoftBank Vision Fund, automaker Honda and T. Rowe Price & Associates, is turning to a heavy hitter to head up its legal team.

The autonomous vehicle technology company has hired Jeff Bleich, board chairman of utility Pacific Gas & Electric, as its chief legal officer. Bleich has a lengthy resume that includes a position as special counsel to former President Barak Obama and as a U.S. ambassador to Australia.

But it’s his legal career that Cruise is tapping into. Bleich was a partner during two stints for a collective 19 years at Los Angeles-based law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson. After leaving Munger in 2015, Bleich became partner at Dentons and led the firm’s global consulting group. Bleich left Dentons in March 2019 and was named board chair of PG&E a month later. During his three-decade career, Bleich has become a specialist in complex litigation with a particular interest. in cybersecurity, intellectual property and international disputes. He has also been awarded California Lawyer Attorney of the Year among others honors.

“Cruise is leading the way to change lives in a shift that is as important as the move from horses to cars,” Bleich said in a statement. “I am honored and inspired to be joining a team that is unrivaled in their focus on safety, accountability, and trust. That perspective is critical to scaling this extraordinary technology to everyone, everywhere.”

The autonomous vehicle industry is at a crossroads of sorts. The flood of startups that popped up several years ago is starting to recede. A handful of well-capitalized and partnered players have emerged, a group that includes Argo.ai, Aurora, Cruise and Waymo. Cruise has raised upwards of $7.25 billion.

Money is just part of the challenge. Companies hoping to commercialize autonomous vehicles to shuttle people and packages face a maze of legal hurdles, including protecting trade secrets, determining product liability and even squaring off against local, state and federal governments.

Voyage gets the green light to bring robotaxi service to California’s public roads

By Kirsten Korosec

Voyage has cleared a regulatory hurdle that will allow the company to expand its self-driving service from the private roads of a retirement community in San Jose, Calif. to public roads throughout the rest of the state.

The California Public Utilities Commission issued a permit Monday that gives Voyage permission to transport passengers in its self-driving vehicles on the state’s public roads. The permit, which is part of the state’s Autonomous Vehicle Passenger Service pilot, puts Voyage in a new and growing group of companies seeking to expand beyond traditional AV testing. Aurora, AutoX, Cruise, Pony.ai, Zoox and Waymo have all received permits to participate in the CPUC’s Drivered Autonomous Vehicle Passenger Service Pilot program.

The permit also puts Voyage on a path toward broader commercialization.

The company was operating six autonomous vehicles — always with a human safety driver behind the wheel — in The Villages, a community of more than 4,000 residents in San Jose, Calif. (Those activities have been suspended temporarily under a statewide stay-at-home order prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.) Voyage also operates in a 40-square-mile, 125,000-resident retirement city in central Florida.

Voyage didn’t need a CPUC permit because the community is made up of private roads, although CEO Oliver Cameron said the company wanted to adhere to state rules regardless of any technicalities. Voyage was also motivated by a grander ambition to transport residents of The Villages to destinations outside of the community.

“We want to bring people to all the things that live outside The Villages, facilities like hospitals and grocery stores,” Voyage CEO Oliver Cameron told TechCrunch in an interview Monday.

Voyage’s strategy was to start with retirement communities — places with specific customer demand and a simpler surrounding environment. The demographic that Voyage serves has an average age of 70. The aim isn’t to change its customer base. Instead, Cameron wants to expand the company’s current operational design domain to give Voyage a bigger reach.

The end goal is for Voyage’s core customers — people Cameron dubs power users — to be able to use the service for everything from heading to a neighbor’s house for dinner to shopping, doctor’s visits and even the airport.

🚨 Announcement time! We recently received a CPUC permit granting permission to move CA residents in driverless cars.

We join a tiny group of companies with this permit (👋@zoox @Cruise @Waymo @aurora_inno) & can’t wait to get back on the road to serve seniors. We miss you ❤pic.twitter.com/VBPtNQjRI1

— Voyage (@voyage) April 20, 2020

The CPUC authorized in May 2018 two pilot programs for transporting passengers in autonomous vehicles. The first one, called the Drivered Autonomous Vehicle Passenger Service Pilot program, allows companies to operate a ride-hailing service using autonomous vehicles as long as they follow specific rules. Companies are not allowed to charge for rides, a human safety driver must be behind the wheel and certain data must be reported quarterly.

The second CPUC pilot would allow driverless passenger service — although no company has yet to obtain that permit.

Under the permit, Voyage can’t charge for rides. However, there might be some legal wiggle room. Voyage can technically charge for rides within The Villages; in fact, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic-related shutdown, the company had started charging for a ride-hailing service.

Rides outside of The Villages would have to be free, although it’s unclear if the company could charge for mileage or time until the vehicle left the community.

Voyage has aspirations to take this further. The company is also applying for a traditional Transportation Charter Permit, which is required for limousine, bus and other third-party charter services. Cameron said the company had to go through the stringent application process for the CPUC’s Drivered AV permit first.

The CPUC programs shouldn’t be confused with the California Department of Motor Vehicles, which regulates and issues permits for testing autonomous vehicles on public roads — always with a safety driver. There are 65 companies that hold autonomous vehicle testing permits issued by the DMV. Companies that want to participate in the CPUC program must have a testing permit with the DMV.

Uber argues ‘fraud’ absolves it from paying star engineer’s $179M fine to Google

By Kirsten Korosec

Uber argued in a recent court filing that former employee Anthony Levandowski committed fraud, an action that frees the company from any obligation to pay his legal bills, including a judgment ordering the star engineer to pay Google $179 million.

The court filing was first reported by Bloomberg.

Uber’s fraud claim was part of its response to Levandowski’s motion to compel the ride-hailing company into arbitration in the hopes that his former employee will have to shoulder the cost of the $179 million judgment against him. The motion to compel arbitration, and now Uber’s response, is part of Levandowski’s bankruptcy proceedings. It’s the latest chapter in a legal saga that has entangled Uber and Waymo, the former Google self-driving project that is now a business under Alphabet.

In this latest court filing, Uber has agreed to arbitration. However, Uber also pushed back against Levandowski’s primary aim to force the company to stand by an indemnity agreement. Uber signed an indemnity agreement in 2016 when it acquired Levandowski’s self-driving truck startup Otto. Under the agreement, Uber said it would indemnify — or compensate — Levandowski against claims brought by his former employer, Google.

Uber said it rescinded the indemnification agreement several months prior to the inception of Levandowski’s bankruptcy case “because it was procured by his fraud,” according to the court filing. Uber revoked the indemnification agreement after Levandowski was indicted by a federal grand jury with 33 counts of theft and attempted theft of trade secrets, while working at Google, where he was an engineer and one of the founding members of the group that worked on Google’s self-driving car project.

Uber notified Levandowski’s counsel on August 30, three days after the indictment, explaining that the indemnification agreement was rescinded “because it had been procured by Levandowski’s fraud, including his fraudulent concealment of the facts alleged in the indictment.”

Levandowski reached a plea deal in March 2020 with the U.S. District Attorney to one count of stealing trade secrets while working at Google.

Uber said it never received any benefits from Levandowski under the indemnification agreement, and had nothing to return to him as a result of the rescission, the company said in the court filing.

Levandowski’s attorney pushed back at Uber’s argument.

“Uber’s assertion that Anthony did not disclose material information to Uber is false,” Levandowski’s attorney Neel Chatterjee said in an emailed statement sent to TechCrunch . “The accusations Uber makes is premised on information they obtained as part of the due diligence process. This is the latest in a string of meritless theories Uber has set forth to try to get out of the deal it struck because it did not like the outcome.”

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